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Here come the St. Louis Blues

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The rollercoaster of a season for the St. Louis Blues saw them sitting in 31st place in the NHL on Jan. 3. There were some games in-hand, and a sign things could be improving, but the results just weren’t coming consistently.

Those early days of 2019 are currently referred to in St. Louis as the pre-Jordan Binnington Era. The 25-year-old rookie netminder had appeared in two games in relief this season but had yet to make his first career start. He would get that chance four days later and kick it off with a shutout against the Philadelphia Flyers.

One month later the Blues have jumped up the standings and reside in the second Western Conference wild card spot, six points behind the Dallas Stars in the Central Division with two games in-hand and tied for the fewest games played in the league. They are tied for the third-most points in the NHL since Jan. 3 with 21 points (10-4-1), which includes Thursday night’s fantastic 1-0 overtime win against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning.

That win featured 32 saves by Binnington, who has overtaken Jake Allen for the No. 1 job in net and been one of the main factors in the Blues’ ascent. The netminder had only one taste of the NHL before this season, a relief appearance during the 2015-16 season, and has spent majority of his professional career in the AHL.

In 10 starts, Binnington has helped the Blues win eight of them, and since that shutout against Philadelphia on Jan. 7, he’s third in the NHL in even-strength save percentage (.954) and, per Natural Stat Trick, has posted a .885 high-danger save percentage — compared to the .796 HDSV% that Allen has recorded this season.

Then there’s the head coach.

This isn’t the first time Craig Berube has led a turnaround. While he had a longer runway to do it with the Flyers in 2013-14, he took over for Peter Laviolette after three games in that season and led them to a win away from the second round. The Blues are 17-13-2 since he replaced Mike Yeo in November and the win over the Lightning encapsulated what he’s tried to instill in his players since taking over.

“The composure that our team’s found, I think more than anything the frustration doesn’t creep in anymore,” Berube said via the Post-Dispatch. “I shouldn’t say anymore, but not as much. We had the three power plays in a row, we could’ve got real frustrated after that but we didn’t. And that’s important. Just stay with it and stay playing.”

It’s a remarkable turnaround considering just two months ago Berube and Brayden Schenn labeled the team as “fragile” after they were booed off home ice following a 6-1 defeat by the Vancouver Canucks. Vladimir Tarasenko apologized to the fans for the team’s poor play, and emotions boiled over in practice when Robert Bortuzzo and Zach Sanford scuffled. Then you had trade rumors putting Tarasenko, Colton Parayko and captain Alex Pietrangelo on the next flights out of town.

General manager Doug Armstrong said after firing Yeo that his team was just “not good enough” and that their core “have to get us out of this.” The Blues’ turnaround can’t all be credited to Binnington. That core has been dependable with some assistance. Tarasenko, Pietrangelo, Schenn, and Ryan O'Reilly have led the way, with Parayko and Oskar Sundqvist chipping in as well. This success has also come with David Perron out since mid-January and Jaden Schwarz goalless since Dec. 18.

This run is coming at a good time for the Blues in a wild West playoff race. The last place Los Angeles Kings are five points out of a wild card spot, so things are tight. But outside of the Chicago Blackhawks, the teams around St. Louis are struggling, especially Central foes the Colorado Avalanche and Minnesota Wild. The games in-hand are valuable at this point, but are useless if they are unable to take points from them.

Considering the bottom half of the West playoff picture changes nightly, the Blues are in a good place and trending upward at the right time.

“It’s fun to be a part of this group right now, and I think we’re headed in the right direction,” said Binnington. “We’re just going to continue on this path and keep going to make our push.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Berube’s Blues playing well enough to make run at playoffs

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

This is not Brayden Schenn‘s first rodeo with a lot of things this season.

It is his second time playing under Craig Berube as an interim coach and the third time his name has been prominent in trade speculation. For Schenn and the St. Louis Blues, those things are related.

A bad start to the season cost coach Mike Yeo his job in November and started talk that just about anyone from Schenn to star winger Vladimir Tarasenko to young defenseman Colton Parayko could be dealt away. But over the past two month as interim coach, Berube has turned things around – so much so that the Blues could make a run at the playoffs and keep general manager Doug Armstrong from selling ahead of the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

”Guys are playing hard right now and (Berube) obviously commands a lot when it comes to the work ethic side of the game,” Schenn said Monday in Washington. ”We’ve had high expectations right from the beginning, we didn’t meet them, then there’s tons of rumors about everyone. That’s kind of how it goes when you’re not winning and you’re not meeting expectations.

”Now we’re in a position – closer, anyways – to make a playoff push, and we feel like we can in this locker room. Now it’s up to us to try and save ourselves, each other, from getting traded and staying here together.”

Berube has pulled the Blues together by getting them back to basics. They’ve gone 5-2-1 in their past eight games to move within four points of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference and can now think about the postseason.

”This is such a good team here, and we’re starting to get back to our game,” leading scorer Ryan O'Reilly said. ”We can get into the playoffs. We can make a difference.”

After trading for O’Reilly and signing forwards David Perron, Tyler Bozak and Patrick Maroon last summer, the Blues were expected to make the playoffs and contend for the Stanley Cup. Twelve losses in their first 19 games led to the coaching change, and Berube has instilled some badly needed consistency.

”He’s one of those guys that wants you to make plays, but he demands a lot,” captain Alex Pietrangelo said. ”He wants you to work. And we’re working right now. That’s what we’re doing. That’s how we’re winning hockey games.”

Berube, who also was interim coach for Schenn and the Philadelphia Flyers in 2013-14, has helped the Blues win games by changing their mentality to become more of a north-south team. There was never a shortage of talent, but now the direction of the action is straight toward the net with the kind of direct style more suited to the group’s size.

”We control the puck in the offensive zone a lot,” Berube said. ”We shoot the puck and get to the net. That’s our game.”

It helps that the Blues are getting stellar goaltending from rookie Jordan Binnington and veteran starter Jake Allen of late. Binnington is 3-1-0 with a 1.55 goals-against average and .937 save percentage in his first four NHL starts after getting called up at age 25 and being asked to steady the ship.

”With a little bit of pressure comes opportunity,” Binnington said. ”You try to do your best to feel confident and prepared for the moment, so you just work hard off the ice and on the ice in practice, and when the moment finally comes, hopefully you’re prepared. That’s kind of how I looked at it.”

Blues skaters look at their rough start not as a case of subpar goaltending but disastrous play in front of the net. Schenn said it was ”ugly” early on, and Pietrangelo said the team has done a better job cutting down on rush chances against, which has made life easier for the goalies.

”We’re playing more of a 60-minute hockey game,” said Allen, who has a .910 save percentage this season under Berube (it was .879 under Yeo). ”We were finding ways to shoot ourselves in the foot prior to that. We’d play 20 minutes of good hockey, 20 minutes of bad hockey, 20 minutes of mediocre hockey and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose. But right we’re getting goals and we’re hunkering down, but at the same time we’re still finding a way to capitalize on opportunities.”

More than anything, the Blues need to pile up the points to go from last place in the Central Division at the time of Yeo’s dismissal to the playoffs after missing by one point last season. Berube gets a lot of credit within the locker room for establishing a foundation of success.

”He’s just brought some stability to the group,” defenseman Robert Bortuzzo said. ”He’s definitely made an emphasis on character and compete. I think that’s something we all needed as a group and something we’re going to need night in and night out.”

Follow AP Hockey Writer Stephen Whyno on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SWhyno

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Where do ‘fragile’ Blues go from here?

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It’s been quite a week for the St. Louis Blues. Let’s recap:

• After being booed off of their home ice following a 6-1 thrashing by the Vancouver Canucks on Sunday, Brayden Schenn labels the team “a fragile group,” three days after interim head coach Craig Berube did the same.

• Superstar forward Vladimir Tarasenko apologized afterward for the team’s poor play at Enterprise Center, which has seen one Blues victory there since Nov. 11 (1-4-1).

• With tensions high around the team, forward Zach Sanford and defenseman Robert Bortuzzo let some emotions out and engaged in a bit of a scrap during Monday’s practice.

This isn’t the spark that general manager Doug Armstrong envisioned for his team when he fired Mike Yeo and replaced him with Berube. A 3-5-1 record since the change hasn’t helped the Blues climb out of the bottom tier of the Western Conference standings.

Under Berube, the decline that began during Yeo’s time in charge has continued. Their goals per game is down from 2.95 to 2.44; goals allowed is up from 3.11 to 3.78 per game; and the power play went from a 24.2 percent success rate to 20.8 percent. Also, four of those six losses have been by three or more goals, so they’ve been busy fishing pucks out of their net.

Empty seats. Boos. The f-word thrown around. Apologies. Fights at practice. What’s got to change? From Berube’s perspective, nothing. He’s just going to keep hammering home his message until it gets through — if it ever does.

“The way out is the same thing we preach day in and day out,” he said. “You have to go into every game, no matter who you play, and you gotta be committed to giving 100 percent effort and compete as hard as you can, every game. … We’re going to keep at it, we’re going to keep pounding it in their heads until they get it. That’s it.”

What about Armstrong’s point of view? He built this team, which included a big trade to bring in Ryan O’Reilly over the summer. Following Yeo’s firing last month he said his patience with the Blues’ core players was at its “thinnest” and that they were the ones who needed to help get the team out of its funk.

Armstrong also added that there are only so many changes that can be made before that group gets torn apart.

“The core group’s equity that was built up is gone,” he said. “That’s what I have to say. I guess I could say it again that with the next head coach, if we’re having this same conversation, they’ll be players gone.”

(No wonder Alex Pietrangelo’s name popped up in trade rumors over the weekend.)

Speaking with the Post-Dispatch this week, Armstrong expressed his frustration at a lack of consistency in the Blues’ play and their inability to find another gear when needed. When adversity strikes, it snowballs and there isn’t enough resiliency in the group to fight back.

So where do the Blues go from here? Their already thin playoff hopes are hanging by a string and it doesn’t appear that a turnaround is going to happen thanks to some extended winning streak. Fourteen points back in the Central Division and 11 points out of a wild card spot, Armstrong will have some tough decisions to make in reshaping this roster going forward.

If his patience was already thin when he made a coaching change, what’s left nine games later when the move hasn’t shown itself to have made a positive impact?

MORE: Your 2018-19 NHL on NBC TV schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Blues GM on team’s core group: ‘They have to get us out of this’

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Craig Berube has been through this before. Three games into the 2013-14 NHL season he replaced Peter Laviolette in Philadelphia. He may have been fired 18 months later, but immediately he helped turn around the Flyers’ season and led them to a playoff berth.

The mandate is the same now in St. Louis where Berube, who had been an associate coach with the Blues since last season, takes over a team that’s once again underachieving and in next-to-last place in the Western Conference with a 7-9-3 record. A look at the various statistical categories and you’ll see that they’re middle of the road. Nothing great, nothing terrible — they just… are. And that’s why Yeo is out of a job. He couldn’t take a roster that was upgraded over the summer and bring them to a level beyond mediocre.

Four months after being fired by the Minnesota Wild in 2016, Yeo was hired as the successor to Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. That plan was sped up after Hitchcock’s firing in Feb., 2017 and the Blues went 22-8-2 down the stretch and eventually were dumped out of the playoffs by the conference champion Nashville Predators in the second round.

What helped that revival was balanced scoring and Jake Allen posting a .941 even strength save percentage in his final 24 starts that regular season. But that number wasn’t sustainable and since the end of the 2016-17 season Allen has a .914 ESSV% in 73 appearances. 

[Blues fire Yeo, name Berube interim head coach]

This season it’s not just on Allen. The possession numbers could be better. Vladimir Tarasenko is shooting 4.26 percent at 5-on-5. David Perron is goalless in November. Patrick Maroon is goalless all season. We’re still waiting on rookies Jordan Kyrou and Robert Thomas to make an impact.

Ryan O’Reilly’s back must be hurting from carrying the team through 19 games.

Good goaltending can mask many things, and it will also make you wonder if allowing Carter Hutton to walk was the best idea. It should also up the pressure on GM Doug Armstrong, who’s now hired another coach to try and fix a mess. (At least he top-10 protected that 2019 first that went to the Sabres in the O’Reilly trade.)

When Armstrong met the media on Tuesday, he honed in on his team’s core group, and was fed up with how their output.

“We’re not good enough,” he said. “As a general manager, the wins and losses fall on hockey operations and as the president of hockey operations and the general manager of the team there’s things that need to be addressed. We’ve stayed patient with the core group of players and that patience now is at its thinnest point.”

The head coach is gone. The boss, for now, remains. There won’t be a handful of trades coming to re-shape the roster. Armstrong is putting this season directly on his top players.

“The core group’s equity that built up is gone,” he said. “We transferred into a different group. That group isn’t three people; that group’s eight or nine people in my opinion. They have to get us out of this.”

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If Berube’s not the answer long-term, then who do the Blues turn to? The obvious candidate is Joel Quenneville, who’s clearly been enjoying his unemployment.

But Quenneville won’t come cheap and is still under contract to the Blackhawks through the end of the 2019-20 season. The Blues would need to seek permission from Chicago to go about hiring him and then they’d have to work out a big money contract. Would owner Tom Stillman be open to ponying up the cash for a fix?

Hey, Todd McLellan’s available now and comes with a cheaper price tag.

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Here’s a fun fact: Since Armstrong took over from Larry Pleau in 2010 the Blues are tied with the Boston Bruins for the third-most regular season wins (365). That’s pretty good considering the Central Division can tout two Stanley Cup champions, two Presidents’ Trophy winning teams and three Western Conference playoff titles over that span.

Of course, during that same period the Blues have only advanced out of the second round once.

Digging deeper into the NHL’s records and you’ll find that Armstrong’s Dallas Stars teams had the fourth-most regular season wins during his 2,118 days as the team’s GM. The end result? One second round appearance, 2002, during the year he took over the gig midseason.

Davis Payne, Hitchcock and now Yeo have taken the fall for their underperforming teams. How much longer does the architect get to keep building them?

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Flyers’ Lecavalier will not retire ‘under any circumstances,’ says agent

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It appears as though Vincent Lecavalier could spend a third season in Philadelphia.

Speaking to TSN’s Frank Seravalli, Lecavalier’s agent Kent Hughes said his client would not retire “under any circumstances”. The Flyers have not contacted Lecavalier about a possible buyout either.

According to Capfriendly.com, buying out Lecavalier would cost the Flyers $2.9 million against the cap in each of the next three seasons. He would then be on the books for an $888,889 cap hit from 2018-21.

Hughes’ latest comments come after he suggested in March that his client could retire before his five-year, $22.5 million contract expires.

The 35-year-old appeared in 57 games for the Flyers in 2014-15 scoring eight goals and 12 assists to go along with a minus-7 rating while averaging 12:39 in time on ice.

Lecavalier’s name surfaced in trade rumors last May, as he was unable to fit into Craig Berube’s system.

It was suggest then that a move to Nashville, where he could reunite with Peter Laviolette, would be a good fit. Laviolette reportedly lobbied for the Flyers to sign Lecavalier after the Tampa Bay Lightning bought him out.

During the 2014-15 season Lecavalier told The Canadian Press that he would likely benefit from a change of scenery.

“Maybe it’s just a better opportunity I need,” said Lecavalier. “It happens to a lot of guys. Sometimes you just have to get out of it, try to get out of it and work hard through it and maybe another opportunity will happen.”

His comments came just days after Berube said he felt more comfortable with Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare as his centers.

In 126 games over two seasons with the Flyers Lecavalier has 28 goals, 57 points and a minus-7 rating.